Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

I wasn’t sure that this book was going to be up my alley, but after hearing a lot of good things about it and after seeing some of the awards and nominations this book got last year, I decided to give it a try. After all, I like to think I can differentiate when a book is legitimately bad and when it’s just not to my taste. Fortunately, that wasn’t a concern here, as Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee is both extremely well-written and far more to my liking than I might have anticipated.

Ninefox Gambit contains a lot of things that can be iffy if done poorly, at least from my point of view – political and religious intrigue, space warfare, really touchy subjects (mental health, heresy, rape (which I will discuss later in the post, heads-up)). But it does manage to handle them all really well. The writing is just… extremely good, especially when dealing with admittedly esoteric subjects – there’s a lot of books I read where I can’t actually follow some of the epic space battles, there’s just too much going on and it’s not clear what’s happening when. Ninefox Gambit is not one of those; the clarity of the book is really impressive to me.

Ninefox Gambit takes place in… space. In the future, presumably? Or possibly just very far away? Time is not specified, nor is it particularly relevant. A stretch of space is controlled by the hexarchate, a system of factions and their leaders that are dedicated to maintaining calendrical doctrine, fighting against calendrical rot and heresy. Skill in mathematics is prized, for the ability to correct rot and heresy (Yoon Ha Lee has a degree in mathematics, which I do not find surprising). Political intrigue between the factions is a huge part of this book, something I don’t always enjoy, but did here. It really helps to enforce one of the central themes of the book, which I’ll get into in a moment.

This book follows Captain (later Brevet General) Kel Cheris, who is assigned the mission of re-taking the Fortress of Scattered Needles from a large group of heretics, who turn out to be the formerly disgraced and excommunicated faction, the Liozh, who were shunned for a particularly egregious heresy. The book explores the tyranny of the hexarchate, the problems with this system where anyone can be executed for questioning a hexarch, where regular celebrations known as “remembrances” involve public torture, and where hexarchs are considered to “own” the people who belong to their faction.

Captain Kel Cheris, as part of this mission, is essentially implanted with the mind and personality of the centuries-old Shuos General Jedao, a brilliant tactician who went mad in his final battle and slaughtered his own people right alongside the heretics he was supposed to be killing. The most pervasive plot thread is Cheris trying to figure out exactly what drove Jedao mad and what happened that day (not to mention why Kel Command keeps him in stasis and keeps bringing him back to use him). Her struggle to maintain her own sanity and withstand his influence is a large part of the conflict of the book, alongside the more literal conflict of the hexarchate versus the heretics at the fortress.

Because I want to discuss the themes of this book, and it’s kind of impossible to do without giving spoilers, here’s your spoiler alert: the rest of this post has a lot of spoilers. Go read the book, then come back and finish this post. Sound good? Alright. Here we go: throughout the book, the continuous lack of information regarding heresies makes them more mysterious and thus more dangerous-seeming to the reader. For a large portion of the book, it seems as though they are justified in pursuing these heretics and converting them back to hexarchate ways of thinking. As such, it’s a huge wham-line when it’s revealed that the heresy that got the Liozh excommunicated was… democracy. The rest of the book implies that the continuing story in future books will be a rebellion against the hexarchate, a fight for democracy.

Obviously, I love this. Fights against tyranny to preserve democracy are always good stories and are, um, well, they feel topical right now. Some very old, very classic stories are becoming relevant again to a degree that they haven’t been for quite a while. Of course, we’re also seeing a whole new class of SFF that deals with these subjects and deals with them frankly, which I really appreciate. Watching Cheris’ discovery of the heresy and her newfound acceptance and commitment to Jedao’s mission – her realization that he was never truly mad to begin with – is really gratifying.

So, about Jedao’s past. During the climax of the book, Cheris consumes some of Jedao’s memories (in a very literal sense, because sci-fi), and she finds that early in his career, he was raped by his (female) hexarch. He was essentially forced to submit to it, because as a Shuos, he “belonged” to her. It was a career (and life)-ruining event for him, and an open secret among all the factions. She does it to gain power over him and it works. This is really interestingly done, in a great way, for a few reasons. For one thing, female-on-male rape is portrayed in books much less frequently than the other way around. It does happen, it’s a real thing, and in Ninefox Gambit, it’s treated exactly as seriously as it should be, which is to say, very.

Often in real life there’s this thought that men are just constantly insatiable sex machines and that the idea of a man being raped isn’t real or isn’t possible. This is, uh, bullshit, to put it frankly. As such, male rape victims almost never come forward about the crime, and often suffer undue mental stress from suppressing the event, from not being allowed to recover from it in any meaningful way. I’ve read books that take that attitude, and it’s awful to see it being reinforced. It was so good here to see how this was handled.

In addition, this was just one of the book’s examples of how high-level political violence leads to low-level personal violence. A system in which a government enforces tyranny on its citizens is also one in which a person with a lot of power is able to enforce tyranny on individuals without it. This is what people are talking about when they talk about systemic violence and systemic racism. It all populates downwards. A government which commits crimes against its people is enabling further crime against them by each other. And any system in which people are considered to belong to others, to owe fealty to others, or where certain kinds of thought are taboo to the point of torture and execution, there’s a huge door left open to “smaller” crimes.

So, in addition to all of the great thematic content above, this book also has a beautifully unique setting with rock-solid worldbuilding, and characters that are plausibly flawed and broken. It’s so well-written, and it is apparently only the first in a trilogy called the Machineries of Empire. The second book, Raven Stratagem, just came out this summer, and I am definitely planning to pick that up soon.

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